I discovered a fascinating story about Bishop and the Owens valley involving a Father J. J. Crowley, known as the ‘desert padre’. I had spotted a memorial to him up on Towne Pass. During the 1920’s the city of Los Angeles started to buy up all the land round here in order to build an aqueduct to divert the water for the rapidly developing city 250 miles to the south. Essential as that water might have been for LA, it decimated the farming community here. When Crowley arrived in his parish families were despairing and packing up to leave.
He went to work campaigning to raise the profile of the area and the issue, and came upon the strategy of publicising the area as a tourist destination. He was a master of publicity and did things like climb Mount Whitney and celebrate mass on top, and flying water from the highest point of America at Mt Whitney to the lowest point in Death Valley.
He was phenomenally successful, and pursued Hollywood to start to use the area for locations for films like Gunga Din, King of the Kyber Rifles and Hopalong Cassidy. Crowley became friend to some of the biggest film stars of the area, and was pivotal to the revitalisation of the area and then one night in 1940 driving home late from a fundraiser in his battered old jalopy, he was tragically killed in a road accident.
Grateful for the good padre, I had a fine breakfast at Jack’s Restaurant, and then set off north along the most scenic road I know, with the Sierra Nevada to the west and the desert to the east. The road rises quickly to around 7000 feet. The air is crisp and clear. At Lake Mono there is the turning over Tioga pass to Yosemite , which was of course closed by all the snow. I hoped that didn’t mean I wouldn’t get to Yosemite this trip, but I knew that was a possibility.
I’m now heading for an amazing natural feature in the middle of the desert called Travertine Hot Spring. There is a dirt road to get there, and it is the most amazing spot. The hot mineral rich water bubbles up and creates that rocky feature – which historically was mined for Travertine, a decorative rock. It builds really quickly and the whole area is covered in those amazing outcrops. But here, the water is dammed to make a pool and you can soak in the very hot water. There were some eccentric old gentlemen who had dug their own pool further up the hill next to the carpark, who tried to persuade me that theirs was much better than this one, but as they were all hanging out naked, I made my excused and wandered down to the natural one. It is glorious, steaming hot and super relaxing. I’m told it gets very busy at weekends, but there were just a few people around, including this nice Italian couple.
Back on the road, I came off the 395 at Bridgeport, and took the backroad route 182 up into Nevada. Lots of good riding through high pastures and ranches. All very lovely, but after the drama of the Sierra Nevada, less to make you stop and take photos. Amazing to think of people living their whole lives out here though, it feels so remote. This little schoolhouse at Smith, Nevada is a testament to the community that people built. I could imagine generations of kids traipsing off reluctantly here year after year.
The praries are lovely, but I’m really here for the mountains and the forests. And so my next destination is Lake Tahoe. It is a dramatic ride from the plains up the mountain to Tahoe, which is also on the California/Nevada State line, and there are a series of massive Casinos just on the Nevada side. It has been a resort town for many years – wealthy people from San Fransisco would often have a second home here. And if you have seen the Godfather 2, you will remember the great house by the Lake which is filmed just on the other side of the lake.
It’s a beautiful place, if clearly very privileged. For the first time I feel a bit out of place in my now fairly grubby riding gear and weather beaten face. But I find a quite reasonable motel, and take a swim in the pool, before going for an evening walk on the beach as the sun sets over the lake. Then into town, and there is a real end of the ski season vibe to it. It is lovely. I get pizza in the main square, listen to the live band playing slightly cliched crowd pleasers, and feel a bit lonely and miss my family.